In both novels, motherhood is a form of property – whether it is a method of ownership or the way which one can be owned. For Linda in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, the birth of her first child, and the growing concern she has for that child, is the point at which she truly begins to think of herself as an individual with agency. “The little vine was taking deep root in my existence, though its clinging fondness excited a mixture of love and pain. When I was most sorely oppressed I found a solace in his smiles” (Jacobs, 54). For Edna in The Awakening, the experience of motherhood is anything but positive. “Still, she remembered Adele’s voice whispering, ‘Think of the children; think of them.’ She meant to think of them; that determination had driven into her soul like a death wound” (Chopin 112). Both the thought of her responsibility towards the children and the role that having them has forced her into eventually propels Edna towards suicide. At the end, “She thought of Léonce and the children. They were a part of her life. But they need not have thought that they could posses her body and soul” (Chopin, 116).
In reading these two contradictory passages, it becomes clear that in both books motherhood is a way in which the idea of property and individualism are linked. In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, the ‘owning’ of her children, the acquisition of power over lives that are not her own, fills Linda with a sense of agency and self-actualization, bringing her one step closer to becoming a recognized ‘person’, both by herself and by society. In The Awakening, a completely opposite effect is achieved by Edna’s motherhood. In this case it is the children who are exerting control over the mother, barring her from the realization of her own individualism and pulling her back into the function of property.
It is in this way that both Linda and Edna, by trying to work within the system that initially debarred them from self-actualization and personhood, are still denied ultimate ‘ownership’ rights over their own projected image and a place in society. This is the tautological problem behind the idea of property. While society insists that owning property validates one as an individual, if one is a formally disenfranchised subject who gains property, one is still barred from societal personhood. For Edna, it doesn’t matter that she has freed herself economically from her husband and the family dynamic; she is still socially trapped by the ideas of motherhood to which her society subscribes. Linda’s dissatisfaction, on the other hand, lies from still being barred from the simplest of human rights based on her skin color: “The dream of my life is not yet realized. I do not sit with my children in a home of my own” (Jacobs, 164).
In his 1891 essay The Soul of Man, Oscar Wilde takes up the issue of property and personhood. He argues that “Private property has crushed true Individualism, and set up an Individualism that is false. It has debarred one part of the community from being individual by starving them. It has debarred the other part of the community from being individual by putting them on the wrong road, and encumbering them” (Wilde). It is precisely into this trap of ‘false Individualism’ that both Linda from Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Edna Pontellier from The Awakening fall. Although these characters differ in many ways, both are under the false assumption, perpetuated by society, that by simply owning property they will gain status as individuals. Yet at the end of their stories, both women are still dissatisfied with the level of personhood such owning gives them.
The message that lies behind these two stories is that these women could never gain their freedom through this traditional gaining of property, because in participating in a system of ownership, a system that society dictated they were never meant to participate in the first place, they are alienated from ‘owning’ a space within the civilizations and societies they seek to inhabit. This last possession is the one they most covet and it is the one, because of their seeking of it, they can never have.
This is an important message to remember in the current climate of rampant consumerism and globalization. People should not be looking for the right iPad, or an apartment in Manhattan, to validate them as members of society. It is not in these objects of ownership that personal efficacy lies. They are merely diversions which society offers up in an attempt to keep those it deems unworthy of personhood within arms’ reach of the realization of their own identities.
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. New York: Dover, 1993. Print.
Jacobs, Harriet A. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2001. Print.
Wilde, Oscar. “Full Text of “The Soul of Man under Socialism”” Internet Archive: Digital Library of Free Books, Movies, Music & Wayback Machine. Web. 13 Mar. 2011. http://www.archive.org/stream/soulofmanunderso00wildiala/soulofmanunderso00wildiala_djvu.txt.
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- “The Second Greatest Force in the Universe” – Ownership of Property and Personhood in the 19th Century (Part 1 of 3)
- “The Second Greatest Force in the Universe” – Ownership of Property and Personhood in the 19th Century (Part 2 of 3)